Seven steps to better balance

Reaching the fabled work-life balance is tough. Petris Lapis’ seven steps will help you devote the time and energy to what really matters

A man riding a horse gallops past. It looks like he is going somewhere important. A woman beside the road shouts, “Where are you going?” The man replies, “I don’t know, ask the horse.” For many of us, this is the story of our lives as we race to meet all the competing demands of family, home, friendships, health and work. Fortunately, there are some small easy steps we can take to help us feel more balanced.

1. Stop being so hard on yourself

It is easy to feel you are making a mess of everything; you’re not being a good partner, parent, friend or employee. When you stop the self judgment and look objectively, you are doing a better job than you think and with a few small changes, you can do even better.

2. Put your own oxygen mask on first

There’s a reason flight attendants tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. If you aren’t looking after yourself, it’s challenging to find the energy to care for those you love and to give your best at work.

We all know that some things are bad for us (smoking, drinking, eating poorly, not exercising, inadequate sleep), but when we get overwhelmed the gap between what we know and what we do stretches even wider. Check in with your body and see what it is trying to tell you about what you eat, and whether it is getting enough exercise and sleep. A good night’s sleep rewards you the next day.

When you feel tired and overwhelmed you inhale the quickest and easiest food you can find (usually packed with simple carbohydrates and sugar). You will have more energy if you eat more fruits, whole grains and vegetables (and your colon will also thank you).

Exercise is one of the best things you can do to help yourself. It pumps fabulous chemicals and hormones into your body, helps you think more clearly and holds the effects of stress and aging at bay. For example, in Western Australia, researchers found that a 30 minute walk a day kept memory loss away in over 50s.

3. Work smarter

Finding a suitable balance between work and daily living is a challenge facing workers all over the world. It is so important for people’s well-being that France has passed a law allowing people to disregard work emails when they’re not in the office and the European Union has passed a directive enforcing a maximum 48 hour working week including overtime.

It is not healthy to regularly work long hours, skip meals, feel stressed and be available for work calls and emails 24 hours a day. It makes you irritable and stressed with your loved ones and harms your well-being.

There are some things you can do to ‘work smarter’ and bring more control to your working hours. The most important thing is to be aware of your behaviours at work. Do you stay late to make up time because you messed around during the day? Have you organised your work space to be clean, neat, comfortable, organised and distraction free? Do you check throughout the day to see if you are focused on your highest priority or side tracked? Are you doing one thing at a time, rather than multi-tasking? Are you doing your most difficult tasks in high energy periods or leaving them until the end of the day?

You don’t have to change all your bad work habits at once. Pick one, start small and keep going.

4. Have an interest outside work

You feel better when you have an interest you enjoy. It energizes you, gives you something to look forward to at the end of the day and makes you a more interesting person. If your only focus is work, where are you replenishing the energy you give out? Are you replenishing it or are you becoming a paler version of yourself daily?

5. Boundaries

It helps if you have healthy boundaries between the things you do. There are three ways you can manage your boundaries.

The first approach is that one part of your life always comes first. Full Stop. End of story. This is the person who takes work phone calls during family meal times but will not take personal calls during work hours. This is also the person who allows work to be interrupted for family commitments, but family time is never interrupted by work.

The second approach is the blend and merge approach where there is a deliberate crossing of boundaries. You might ask a work colleague to a family BBQ, take your children on a corporate fun run, switch between work tasks and personal tasks throughout the day, have an extended lunch hour so you can go to the gym and then you take work home or spend two hours on the weekend devoted to work and the rest to family or ‘me’ time.

The third approach keeps distinct boundaries between different areas. Work is done during business hours only. To make this work, you must take responsibility for setting and enforcing your boundaries. It won’t succeed if you spend family time replying to work emails as they arrive.

6. Use the ‘reset’ button

When researchers asked families of CEOs what it would take to have better life balance, their answers were surprising. Their families didn’t want more time with the CEOs, but they did want the time they spent with them to be happier time. Families disliked it when their loved one brought work stress home.

This is where the ‘reset button’ comes in. It has two steps and you push it in the space between your activities (e.g. work and home). First, review your day by asking yourself what went well, what you could have done better and what you learned. The second thing you do is ‘reset’ and choose who you will be when you walk through the door Are you going to be the person who is happy and excited to see loved ones or the person who is going to bring work stress home and dump it on them? The reset button helps stop the overflow from one area of your life into the next.

7. Find more joy in each moment

Many of us spend a lot of time at work, so it only makes sense to make those moments more joyful. There are simple things you can do to bring more joy to your work. Help colleagues see the funny side of a situation rather than focusing on the negativity and drama of it. Say ‘hello’ and smile at people (even the ones you like to pretend aren’t there). Treat others as you would like to be treated; i.e. practice small acts of kindness. This could be as simple as dropping someone’s printing on their desk or making a cup of coffee for a colleague you know is having a difficult day. Start with the small changes you can easily make and keep going until you feel life is more balanced.